Santa Barbara Wine: Up, Down, Sideways

News from every angle in Central Coast county

by Jane Firstenfeld
santa barbara county wine bloggers conference
Organizers of the Wine Bloggers Conference consider proximity to wine country and strong local support when choosing conference locations. The 2014 conference will take place July 11-13 in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Santa Barbara, Calif.—Next summer, some 400 wine bloggers will congregate in Santa Barbara for the annual Wine Bloggers Conference. Morgen McLaughlin, who took the helm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association in April, secured that important commitment during the recent blogger event in Penticton, British Columbia.

Santa Barbara should prove a more accessible destination and bigger draw than Penticton: McLaughlin, for instance, flew from Los Angeles to Seattle, then drove another 6.5 hours to reach Penticton. Although connections to Santa Barbara are relatively few and expensive, the coastal city is less than a two-hour drive from LAX, the nearest major airport.

Wine travel specialist Zephyr Adventures, organizer of the blogger conference, solicited bids from numerous candidate locations. The requirements included sufficient wine attractions and activities as well as accommodations. Prior to the 2013 event, McLaughlin said, “The British Columbia provincial government put in a lot of money.” Nevertheless, the relatively remote destination limited attendance, she said.

Santa Barbara’s scenic Central Coast location and cinematic fame from the 2004 hit “Sideways” make it a natural draw. With both rural and urban wineries, there is ample fodder for bloggers to experience and write about. According to the Wine Bloggers Conference, “We won’t even think about a location unless there is strong local support and a gung-ho local leader who can help make things happen. We ask the local hosts to provide the sit-down dinner on Saturday and the Friday excursions into wine country. Anything extra, like access to speakers or tie-ins to other events, can strengthen a local bid.”

The 2014 conference is scheduled for July 11-13, headquartered at the Marriott in Santa Barbara.

tommy town vineyards
TTT Farms, the Happy Canyon location of Tommy Town Vineyards, is home to grapevines and thoroughbreds but not a tasting room. The owner's proposal for a tasting room nearby was rejected by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

Does the county understand wine?
There are currently 210 wineries in Santa Barbara County, but according to WinesVinesDATA, only 120 have tasting rooms. One long-sought tasting room was shot down by the county Board of Supervisors earlier this month.

Tom Stull, owner of Tommy Town Vineyards (also known as TTT), has been producing wine in Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon since 2008. He applied to build a tasting room on a 5-acre property facing Roblar Avenue in the Santa Ynez Valley. After years of hearings and appeals, the supervisors again denied the application in a 3-2 decision.

It was, according to county supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who supported the tasting room, a NIMBY-driven (Not In My Backyard) ruling. “NIMBY is not the term we use here,” he told Wines & Vines. “Our new definition is BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

He suggested that the denial was based on local precedent: Although the TTT site is zoned Ag 1, which technically would allow a winery, the county has never approved a tasting room on a parcel smaller than 10 acres.

At the moment, there are only two winery tasting rooms on Roblar Avenue: 10,000-case Bridlewood Estate, owned by E. & J. Gallo, and 5,000-case Roblar Winery

Lavagnino said that at least one neighbor of the proposed tasting room had appeared before the board to protest events at existing wineries: “He had complained to the sheriff’s office about excessive noise at 3 p.m.,” the county supervisor said.

Other residents had expressed concerns about too much noise, traffic and light. Lavagnino said that TTT had conducted a required traffic study and proposed only ground lighting, “not stadium lights.” The study, he said, concluded that even if four nearby wineries staged events concurrently, traffic would not be excessive in the rural area.

“Our government is trying to find money for services. Santa Barbara basically has two huge industries: tourism and agriculture. Wineries and tasting rooms are the best of both. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this. I’m very disappointed that we rejected this revenue-generating business,” Lavagnino said.

TTT owner Stull, who also breeds thoroughbred horses on his expansive estate, was not available for comment. Kirby Anderson has been making Tommy Town Bordeaux varietal wines from 300 acres of estate-grown grapes since the first 2008 vintage. He told Wines & Vines that Tommy Town will not be producing wine in 2013. Anderson is an established winemaker; his current consulting clients include Dolin Malibu Estate and Wedell Cellars.

In the quest for a tasting room, TTT incurred “hundreds of thousands (of dollars) in expenses, not including gearing up the brand,” Anderson said. “Finally, in the fall of 2012, we’d done everything the county had asked.”

In anticipation of the tasting room approval, he said, “Tom decided to produce 200 tons in 2012—close to 15,000 cases.” But without a tasting room or wine club, and existing inventory from 2011 and 2012, “We’re going to have to downsize our existing vintages. Without a well-oiled distribution system, good luck.”

Other ways to regulate
Zoning issues are a common bugaboo throughout the wine industry. McLaughlin said one reason she’d left her family’s McLaughlin Vineyards in Connecticut eight years ago was because of zoning frustrations that barred revenue-generating events and food service there.

In her previous position at the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association she experienced a different model. “They could do whatever they wanted,” she recalled. She liked the more free-enterprise system, and hopes to promote more of that in Santa Barbara.

“I have met with the county supervisors. I’m young in my position, but I think there’s a lot the wine industry needs to do to educate the general public, elected officials and government employees about what the wine industry is.

“I was surprised by questions about food service at wineries,” she commented. “The public seems to see that as a separate category, not intertwined with wines. Serve crackers and bread, but no menus,” she heard.

“The supervisors don’t realize if you limit certain things, it hurts the business and the image of the county as a destination,” she said. “In my directive from the SBCVA board of directors, we will definitely be communicating more about the industry”

There is, she said, a lot of miscommunication. “People who buy homes here are in a position to fund opposition” to industry growth. These residents are not, she said, concerned about positive economic impact. “They want their piece of heaven to remain untouched.”

It’s vital, McLaughlin said, that that the association communicates directly to the supervisors with concrete facts and figures, providing “a toolbox full of studies and facts.”

Dodging flames
Memorial Day weekend, traditionally a bright spot for winery tasting rooms, could have been a washout in Santa Barbara County. After a dry winter and spring, an early wildfire broke out in the rugged east side of the county. The following week, the “White” fire was eventually contained after scorching almost 2,000 acres.

Anderson reported that flames from one small brush fire had come within 20 feet of vines grown by a former winemaking client, Gainey Vineyard, but were quickly extinguished.

McLaughlin checked with her members and tourism partners and learned that, mercifully, the fire had virtually no negative impact on visitation, although some campsites had been evacuated. The East Coast transplant noted, “I think it’s a matter of perspective: People living in wildfire-prone areas are not desensitized, but are more familiar with sources to get up-to-date information.”

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